It may have seemed at times the cupboard was bare, the purse was empty and everyone was on his last legs.

While 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus outbreak and the strain it put on everything from the economy to personal relationships, the Arkansas Foodbank and its partners redoubled their efforts even as resources seemed to be cut in half.

Volunteers were lost to illness, unemployment and safety precautions; food packing and delivery became more difficult because of health concerns while the costs of gas and food, among other things, went up.

But so did the need for more food as people fell on hard times.

“Everybody has learned how quickly they can become food insecure,” Arkansas Foodbank CEO Rhonda Sanders says. “That has been gut wrenching for many people.”

But with a big boost from corporate sponsor Bank of America and the hard work and creativity of individuals arrayed across its network, the Foodbank continued its mission to feed the hungry and actually outperformed its 2019 efforts in measurable ways.

“It really has been an eye opening experience for everyone,” Sanders says. “They’ve learned about the Foodbank, they’ve learned about hunger, they’ve learned about mobile distribution.”

The Arkansas Foodbank has a presence in 33 counties, and in 2020 it collaborated with 419 local pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, homeless centers and schools to locate those in need and make food deliveries.

“They are our arms and legs,” Sanders says of the local help. “They open the doors. They put boxes of food together. They hand those boxes of food to clients that are facing hunger. They help them with other services they need. They are our front line and that’s who we lean heavily on.”

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foodbank, local agencies and corporate partners joined forces to provide 40.4 million pounds of food in 2020, a 37% increase over 2019’s output.

"We really had to lean heavily on corporate sponsors to step up and do more,” Sanders says. “Bank of America was one that did that. Everything we did in 2020 was more expensive than it’s ever been. Even with packing boxes, we had to have additional box supplies, we had to have staff to do that.”

Bank of America, which has had a more than 20-year relationship with the Foodbank, not only made its usual, annual gift, it circled back for another donation at the height of the outbreak in July. Magen Tune, Bank of America senior vice president and Arkansas market manager, says it was not hard to see what was going on, noting that even before the outbreak one in five Arkansans dealt with some form of food insecurity.

“There’s no secret about it. The pandemic exacerbated an issue that we were already struggling with,” Tune says. “Our population in Arkansas, we already had a food security issue. It really amplified that. We saw our community struggling in ways that we just had not seen in a very long time.”

Bank On It

In its two-plus decades affiliated with the Arkansas Foodbank, Bank of America has helped out with financial gifts, volunteerism and collaborative efforts. There are a number of worthy causes in Arkansas, Tune says, but if people are looking to support the Foodbank they should know their money and help will go far in fighting hunger, thanks to Foodbank’s extensive reach, infrastructure and local and corporate partners.

“You can donate a dollar and that’s going to provide five meals,” Tune says.

This year’s annual Bank of America gifts — amounts undisclosed — in part backed the spring Hunger Heroes program in which kids ages 5-18 helped raise money for the Foodbank’s youth hunger initiatives. With careful pronunciation, Tune also name-drops Get Shift Done, a Bank of America-supported, pandemic-related effort which paid adversely affected hourly hospitality workers for shift work at the Foodbank.

With more communities reaching out and more local help needed for packing and distribution of the food boxes, the funding for Get Shift Done was vital as the pandemic cut into the Foodbank’s volunteer availability.

“Last year they just really doubled up on everything,” Sanders says of Bank of America. “They always give us a generous gift each year, but last year they gave an additional gift that helped fund [Get Shift Done] locally. It is an effort that actually paid restaurant workers who were out of work to work for us in packing boxes and things of that nature that we needed. We lost all of our volunteers during COVID. We live and breathe with volunteers.”

Tune says the Bank of America donations also alleviated the costs of PPE and helped provide around 60,000 masks, 800 containers of hand sanitizer and 40,000 pairs of gloves.

“I think now more than ever we really understand how quickly we can mobilize and help alleviate food insecurity,” Tune says. “2020 reminded us how important community is. We all experienced a difficult year last year, but there were some who really found themselves in a really critical place.”

Of course the pandemic is not over, and as it moves into its second year the Foodbank continues to rely on the generosity of its partners and supporters in order to continue its mission of feeding the hungry.

That makes the Foodbank’s annual Empty Bowls fundraiser as important as it ever was, if not more.

“We have a lot of partners and we do a lot of things in the community, a lot of events. They’re really costly,” Tune says. “It’s hard for a lot of individuals to really support and attend those events. … Empty Bowls is not one of those events. The Foodbank makes it very easy for people to participate and learn more about the Foodbank.”

Filling the Bowls

The Empty Bowls event accomplishes the dual objectives of raising money — this year’s goal is $150,000 — and raising community awareness about hunger and food insecurity. Even as it transitions this year to a socially distanced, partially virtual, drive-through event, Empty Bowls will continue to achieve those two objectives.

Despite the economic hits caused by the pandemic, the fundraising goal has not been reduced from past years, Sanders says.

“We’re still living through a pandemic. It’s not over,” she says. “Everybody has wished it to be over, expecting it to be over. I’m sure the whole world is tired of it. We all are. But it’s still going and we’re still seeing a need.”

The event will be held May 7 at the Immanuel Baptist Church parking lot in Little Rock. Attendees can drive through and sample specialty, to-go sized dishes from the local restaurants represented while picking up information and hearing presentations on the Foodbank’s work.

The 19th iteration of Empty Bowls will also feature live entertainment and a virtual auction during the week of the event. Attendees will be able to remotely bid on the handcrafted bowls, created by local artists, that will be on display during the live portion.

Empty Bowls will also celebrate honorees for their philanthropy, altruism and volunteerism. Geyer Springs United Methodist Church will be recognized as the food pantry honoree for its increased support and service of the hungry during the pandemic. Brad Sweeney, a former volunteer recently employed by the Foodbank, is the volunteer honoree for the 526 hours of time he donated last year. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, Bank of America is to be recognized as the corporate honoree for its sponsorship.

“It took everybody,” Sanders says. “It took our corporate sponsors. It took everybody to make it through this past year.”

Hunger by the Numbers

2020 demanded more of the Arkansas Foodbank than ever before. Here's how they responded.

40.4
million pounds of food distributed, up 37% from 2019


8.3
million pounds of produce distributed


600
meals provided per year by every $100 donation


602
mobile distributions, up from 51 in 2019


98,670
backpacks distributed to children facing hunger


34
million meals distributed


8,700
volunteers safely recruited during the pandemic

Empty Bowls
Friday, May 7, 11 a.m.
Immanuel Baptist Church Little Rock
Info: 501.569.4329, arkansasfoodbank.org/empty-bowls